Words: Mike Rose

Photos: Nathan Hughes

It’s great to be back racing. Much was the same in Lenzerheide, but a lot was different too. The track was pretty similar as previous years, the INTENSE Factory Racing team of Aaron Gwin, Dakotah Norton, Joe Breeden and Seth Sherlock remained the same as 2022, but the prototype bike the team was riding was new. Gone was the HP1 from last year, and in was the HP6 for 2023 and beyond.

And of course the whole UCI Downhill World Cup series was new. A different organizer, a new racing format, new TV production, new commentators. When Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) took over the running of the World Cup series towards the end of last summer we knew that there would be changes. There was still that first day back at school vibe, but things were definitely different.

For the racers the new format was the most important change. We talked about it in our previous blog post, but basically it was practice Thursday, then a new qualifying round on Friday that cut the field down to 60 riders, then on Saturday things got really spicy. A morning ‘semi final’ where the field was once again cut, this time from 60 to 30 riders, and then in the afternoon the finals.

Some riders were protected from their previous season’s rankings. IFR were in the situation where Aaron, who finished 8th last year, was protected all the way to the finals. But Dakotah, who finished 16th in 2022, was only protected up until the semi finals. Joe and Seth were not protected at all, so in order for them to progress they had to qualify from the get-go.

As practice got underway all was looking good. Everyone was fit and happy, the new bike was working well… then disaster struck. Looking good on track Aaron went down hard:

“I had a big crash and unfortunately broke my arm/elbow in a few spots. Bummed would be an understatement but that’s how our sport goes sometimes. It was a weird crash, it didn’t feel like I made a big mistake but the margin for error in that section was so small. I would normally have a good chance to save something like this but with the drop coming up so quick I didn’t have the time.”

“So much training and preparation went into this season. I really believed I put myself in a solid position to battle for wins and a title again. Felt better physically than I ever have and the new bike has been awesome. I always say, success is never owed just because you work hard, but it does greatly improve your chances. Time to put the focus into this recovery.” Aaron Gwin

This crash and injury was devastating, not just for Aaron, but for the whole team. The guys had to pick themselves up and get on with the job in hand… qualification. With 190 Elite Men racers on the start sheet it was going to be tough. Dak put in a great first run slotting into 13th, plus some points for the overall standings. Seth had a great result in 48th meaning that he went through to the semis, but it was agony for Joe who missed the qualification cut off time by just one second.

A night to recuperate and mentally prepare and it was Saturday… race day. Luckily it remained dry, as the stormy weather that had been threatening stayed away. Seth was down first and he put in a time that would land him in 42nd position in the semi, not quite good enough to qualify for the final, but it eventually lead to him finishing 44th in the overall standings. A great outcome for Seth:

“The pace wasn’t quite there to crack the top 30 and make it into finals unfortunately. Either way I’m really happy with how I rode. I didn’t take any crazy risks and still stacked up pretty well, so the pace is definitely there. Just gotta send it a little harder next time!”

With Dak only being protected into the semis this run now really mattered. Once again he put in a solid performance finishing in 19th, with more points for the overall, but most importantly, he was in the main the event, finals.

We say this every year, but the standard and depth of talent in downhill racing is huge. Trying to pick a winner pre-race is almost an impossible task. The amount of raw talent on display makes this sport one of the most exciting that there is… or maybe I’m biased! Dak had a good run in finals with a 2:42.807 (almost five seconds quicker than his qualifying time) and he settled into the hot seat looking pretty comfortable.

Once all the riders had been down and the dust had settled he found himself in ninth position, 3.585 seconds back from the winner Jordan Williams. It’s worth pointing out that the top 5 finishers were all within one second (give or take the odd one-hundredth) of each other, and that sixth through to Dak in ninth was just another 1.5 seconds back. Tight racing.

Slightly frustratingly, when all the points from the weekend were added up (quali, semi and final), Dak finds himself in 11th overall. If I understand the new rules correctly that means that he is once again protected from qualis into the semi, but he is not protected into the final… so the race will be on.

The new two run system may not have pleased everyone, there were definitely some tired and slightly unhappy racers, but for a fan I think it worked. The action was fast, the atmosphere built, and we got to see more of what we love.

Huge congratulations must go out to Jordan Williams, who took his first ever senior World Cup win in his first ever Elite race. And we cannot forget the ‘fastest mum in the world’ Rachel Atherton, who came back from having her baby in 2021 (her daughter Arna) to win the Elite women’s race. I mean, you couldn’t really make it up!

As I type this Aaron is on his way back home in the US to get surgery on his elbow/arm, whilst the rest of the team head east to Austria. The race in Leogang this weekend will be the first of its kind, a triple header that includes XC, DH and Enduro (quadruple-header if you include Short Track). It is a hell of an undertaking for the new World Series team, but if Lenzerheide is anything to go by I think they’ve got it covered.

Dak and Joe take on the downhill (qualis on Friday), whilst Seth concentrates his efforts in the Enduro (race Thursday).